From “Investing in Native Communities.” Photos: Kisha Bari and Native Americans in Philanthropy. CC BY-NC 4.0.

Native Americans in Philanthropy (NAP), which turns 30 this year, has partnered with Candid to publish a new report. Titled Investing in Native Communities: Philanthropic Funding for Native American Communities and Causes, the report evaluates the state of the field, tracing giving patterns from 2002 to 2016. Additionally, a new dedicated website, hosted by Candid, provides supporting information. Five foundations—Bush, Henry Luce, Marguerite Casey, Robert Wood Johnson, and the Northwest Area Foundation—sponsored the report.

Among the core findings: 30 years ago, Native groups received 0.2 percent of all grants from the nation’s largest 1,000 foundations. Today, they get 0.4 percent. This is better, but far from adequate. Census figures show that 2.09 percent of the US population or 6.8 million people are American Indian or Alaskan Native. (In addition, Native Hawaiians number 560,000.)

In short, Native Americans would get five times more in philanthropic support if they received grants in proportion to their numbers. Among the report’s findings are the following:

  • “From 2002 to 2016, large U.S. foundations gave, on average, 0.4 percent of total annual funding to Native American communities and causes.”
  • “Funding for Native communities and causes significantly dropped following the recession. Although grant dollars increased slowly afterwards, giving in 2015 and 2016, adjusted for inflation, was at roughly the same level as in 2006.”
  • “Twenty percent of large foundations give to Native communities and causes. Even among this specific group, most give only one or two grants.”
  • “The majority of grant dollars are for program support (56 percent); only 15 percent goes to general operating support.”

In the report’s foreword, Edgar Villanueva (Lumbee), who chairs the NAP board, writes,

Too much of our story remains invisible—to policymakers, to mainstream culture, and to philanthropy. This has resulted in historical underfunding from the philanthropic sector…as well as instability in year-over-year funding levels. With only 20 percent of large foundations giving to Native communities and causes—many of these intermittently—long-term relationship building between Native communities and the philanthropic sector becomes incredibly challenging.

Using a Candid database that looks beyond the top thousand foundations, the report identifies $208.4 million in grants specifically for Native Americans in 2015 and 2016. If you add in grants where Native Americans are listed as being among the beneficiaries, that figure climbs to $493.8 million.

If you count back to 2006, the total value of grants has been $2.2 billion, divided among 3,863 organizations. That works out to $570,000 per organization over the course of a decade—and, since the number of grants is 10 times as high, about $57,000 per grant.

Because of data reporting issues, philanthropy within Indian Country, often supported by gaming revenues, is not included in these numbers. The report does give some anecdotes. For example, in Minnesota, since the 1990s, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community “has donated more than $350 million to both Native and non-Native nonprofits, health care facilities, and local governments.”

But tribal philanthropy does not suffice to make up for the overall shortfall. Over the last decade, the gap in support between what Native American groups receive and what they would be getting if grants were proportional to their numbers is greater than $8 billion.

While the report provides numbers and a detailed timeline of the history of colonialism and genocide that Native Americans have faced, overall, the report offers an optimistic take on the possibility for change. Recent years have seen protests by the Standing Rock Sioux, whose opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline helped break through the invisibility Villanueva describes. In 2018, the governor of Alaska offered an official apology to Alaskan Natives for “historical wrongs” committed by the state against Native peoples. This year, the governor of California issued an apology for the state’s history of violence against Native Americans, explicitly calling it genocide.

Within philanthropy, too, the report sees “signs that the sector is changing. Conversations are taking place about how inequities are perpetuated throughout philanthropy.”

An increasing number of foundations have begun explicitly addressing racial equity in their missions and programs. Momentum is building for philanthropy to build more equitable, inclusive communities and to begin using its power and privilege to support grassroots movements.

Villanueva, in the report foreword, writes that, “Our current story is also one of resilience and opportunity— and powerful Native-led work that is building community, increasing power and leadership, and preserving our cultures. The world is now looking to our communities for solutions and leadership across sectors—from environmental conservation to innovative entrepreneurship to cultural preservation. Even the field of philanthropy, which is grappling with issues of diversity, equity and inclusion, is looking to us for ways to better integrate these values into practice.”

He adds, “Money can be medicine if it’s deployed in love and given in ways to restore, repair, and heal.”

Gabrielle Strong of Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies notes that, “Philanthropic support of Indian Country is vital. We hope to see a real shift in the level of giving. And there are many opportunities to address pervasive socio-economic and health disparities while supporting Native community assets and resiliency.”

The possibility for change is clear if we look to Alaska. In Alaska, an estimated 18 percent of the state’s 736,000 people are Alaskan Native or American Indian—or about 132,500 people. This means that Alaska Natives constitute about two percent of the nation’s 6.8 million Native Americans. Yet Alaskan Natives were identified as explicit beneficiaries of 16 percent of all Native American focused grants nationwide. This corresponds to a pattern found in a First Nations Development Institute study published last year about community foundation grants in Indian Country—and speaks to the success of Alaskan Natives have had at increasing their visibility.

As for what increased philanthropy in Indian Country might achieve, the report’s accompanying website’s “investments in action” section lifts up case studies that highlight the potential for funding to boost transformative change (as well as including a map and dashboard that allows philanthropies to dig deep to find suitable projects that they might wish to support in their own communities). Among the examples highlighted on the website are the following:

  • In Minnesota (White Earth), Honor the Earth “works to raise public awareness and direct funds to grassroots Native environmental groups [using] music, the arts, media, and Indigenous wisdom to ask people to recognize our joint dependency on the Earth and be a voice for those not heard.”
  • In Hawaii, ʻAha Pūnana Leo, a Native Hawaiian nonprofit, promotes Hawaiian language as well as other needed skills among Native Hawaiian children.
  • In South Dakota, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe has developed a “Ventures Poverty Reduction Plan, which focuses on promoting income-generating opportunities in remote settlements, providing youth internships, and establishing financial literacy and individual savings programs.”
  • In Alaska, the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium “partners with Alaska Native groups and provides “comprehensive medical services, wellness programs, disease research and prevention, and other services to Natives living in Alaska.”

If the above examples illustrate the potential for philanthropy to support community building in Indian Country, the report also identifies how to do so.

In particular, the report lays out six primary steps:

1. “Meet people where they are at—literally.”

As Sean Buffington of the Henry Luce Foundation points out, going to Native nation land or having program offices visit urban Native nonprofit offices “demonstrates the respect that potential partners and grantees deserve.” The report also features Strengthening the Circle, an American Indian leadership development program that hosts annual gatherings “that bring Native nonprofit leaders in dialogue with each other and with funders” in a Native-led environment where funders can “engage in meaningful dialogue with Native leaders and learn from their wisdom and needs.”

2. Be flexible with organizational systems and practices.

As Vanessa Daniel of the Groundswell Fund puts it, this involves practicing “cultural humility” and “adapting yourself as a funder rather than asking Native leaders and organizations to adapt themselves to you.” Daniel elaborates: “This can mean making more time for calls and meetings and being open to a slower [pace] of communication…through stories rather than a standard pitch. For super grassroots and nascent organizations, it may mean being willing to take a proposal over the phone or, if your institution requires a grant application, providing funding for a grant writer to help the organization write the grant.”

3. Provide long-term operating support.

Operating support is a philanthropic best practice in general, especially with grassroots groups. Hester Dillon, who is Cherokee and a program officer at the NoVo Foundation observes that, “When communities are at the center of the work being supported, provided some flexibility with long-term general operating support, and allowed some time to do what they see needs to be done, the effects are incredible.” Additional benefits of operating support are that it facilitates relationship building and fosters greater creativity. Dillon points to a Native language immersion school where operating support gave it the freedom to experiment and developed a board game that is now being used to reach far more tribal members than the school can enroll directly.

4. Support Native-led solutions.

Martin Jennings, who is Ojibwe and a program officer at Northwest Area Foundation, notes there has been in philanthropy an “overreliance on best practices that are coming from the field, which is dominated by western worldviews. This can lead to a misalignment of values, practices, and outcomes that serves neither the funder nor communities.” Louis Gordon (Xicano/Purépecha) of the Seventh Generation Fund for Indigenous Peoples adds, “The number one question for us is whether the project is initiated by, led by, and totally controlled by the community that it impacts. That’s the most important bottom line for us.”

5. Partner with Native re-granting institutions.

Kevin Walker, president of the Northwest Area Foundation, notes that the foundation he leads has partnered with Native community development financial institutions (CDFIs) that know the community and can serve as “weavers” who can connect “families, communities, and entrepreneurs to the resources necessary to bring dreams to life for multiple generations.”

6. Ground the work in your mission.

Eva Friesen of the Calgary Foundation, a community foundation in Alberta, Canada, notes that if a foundation examines its own mission critically, “Indigenous peoples might be integral to it.” Friesen adds, “There’s a segment of the population that isn’t being reached. Look at why you exist—and get better at your reason for existing.” 

Concluding Thoughts

For foundations that are interested in increasing their support of Indian Country, but don’t know where to begin, the report suggests making four commitments: “1) learn about Native peoples and their history; 2) evaluate your organization’s practices; 3) build relationships with Native communities and nonprofits and with peer funders that have relationships in Indian Country; and 4) begin funding.” Elyse Gordon of Philanthropy Northwest emphasizes, “It is important to understand that each Native community is unique. Tribal groups may share similar experiences and common challenges, but each has its own culture, traditions, and history.”

It is also important to bear in mind that while philanthropy often places money in silos, in the real world, these issues are interconnected. Talking about the work of the NoVo Foundation with women, Native communities, and the environment, Dillon observes, “Violence against Native girls and women comes from violence against the earth. Fossil fuel extraction disrupts the planet herself, and where that disruption occurs, we also see higher rates of violence against women, not just in Indigenous communities, but against women in general. Where there’s harm against the earth, there’s also harm against women in those vicinities.”

As the report’s authors observe, “It is incomprehensible to some tradition-oriented Native people that foundations do not use an interdisciplinary approach to fund projects in tribal communities.”

Correction: This article has been altered from its initial form to reflect that the Cheyenne River Sioux are from South Dakota, and not Wyoming. NPQ regrets the error.